Breaking Ground In College Journalism

Two students have become the first black editors-in-chief of their college newspapers in Oregon, which has a black population of less than 2 percent. Host Michel Martin talks with Brandon Southward of Oregon State University and Tyree Harris of the University of Oregon.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now, as we close out Black History Month, we are reminded that big changes throughout history have often come from a series of small victories. Many of the landmark firsts that we remember were shaped by people who broke ground in their own communities and paved the way for significant changes to happen on a national level.

In Oregon, two college students have now become a part of that tradition. For the first time in the history of either institution, the editors-in-chief of both the Oregon State University and the University of Oregon's daily newspapers are African-American.

Member station KLCC in Eugene, Oregon first reported on these two student journalists, so we are giving credit where credit is due and following their story. Brandon Southward is the editor-in-chief of Oregon State University's Daily Barometer. Tyree Harris is the editor-in-chief of the University of Oregon's Oregon Daily Emerald. And they are both with us now.

Congratulations to you both. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

TYREE HARRIS: Hey, thank you for having me.

BRANDON SOUTHWARD: Yeah, thank you.

MARTIN: Well, it is always exciting - well, why don't we ask if it is, in fact, exciting to break ground and be first. So, Brandon, I'll start with you. Is it important? Is this an important first on your campus?

SOUTHWARD: Oh, I think so. Especially in Oregon, having a person of color be in a leadership position, especially being the first, I hope that it inspires others. I mean, that's kind of weird for me to say at 23, that I want people to be inspired to be like me, but I hope it inspires more diversity within the newsroom. And I think what both me and Tyree are doing is very important and this is a big moment in time for our college newspapers. And, hopefully, we won't be the last editors of color for a while.

MARTIN: Tyree, what about you? And I also understand that there are some people in your own life that you hope to inspire, like your little brother.

HARRIS: Yeah. I have two little brothers. I have a 13-year-old and a 2-year-old and, you know, just to be able to, you know, show them that you can get somewhere in this world despite, you know, where you come from or, you know, the color of your skin. I think, to be a model of that means a lot to me.

I think it's a very interesting point in Oregon history right now, where we have two African-American leaders at news organizations. It's significant, without a question, in my eyes.

MARTIN: How did you get bitten by the journalism bug? Tyree, why don't you go first?

HARRIS: Well, it was my sophomore year in high school and I was in a class and the teacher recommended me to get in newspaper class. And I had gotten into it and I started off and the first thing I did was write a column and the column I wrote was about books and how the books that we read were so old and antiquated that all the students who hate reading can't even relate to the books enough to even want to read them. And that was the first thing I did and all the students around were like, yeah, I agree, which, of course, they would agree with anything that means that that's why they hate reading.

MARTIN: No. But I see your point, though, that you were relating something that was right in front of them to something going on right - it was news. You were talking about something contemporary that had relevance to them.

HARRIS: Right, right. And so, you know, once I realized - oh, my goodness, when you write about things that people relate to and identify with, you get a response, and you can actually, like, challenge people to make changes. And, you know, once I realized that, I fell in love with it and I knew it was going to be something that was going to be a big part of my life.

MARTIN: Brandon, what about you? When did you get bitten by the journalism bug?

SOUTHWARD: Well, it started when I was really young. I used to read the sports when I lived in Florida - you know, Fort Lauderdale. I used to open up the sports page and then my grandmother would make me go back and read the front page, so since I was about 7, 8 years old, I've been kind of reading the paper. And I really started loving even getting more involved in journalism, I think, probably high school.

And, at one point, I was going to get involved with the campus paper - I mean the school paper - but the principal pretty much ran that and she would censor a lot of what would be said in there, and me and her didn't really get along too well. And so I didn't do that, but once the election rolled around in '08, I decided, you know, it was time to say something, to be a voice. And so I applied and my first column came out two weeks before the election and it was about what I thought was going to happen in the election and, since there, I've been involved with the paper.

MARTIN: We're talking with the student editors-in-chief of Oregon State University and the University of Oregon's daily newspapers. They are both the first African-American students to hold this position at their respective institutions.

Do you feel a little bit of pressure to represent, as it were, Brandon, that...

SOUTHWARD: Oh, yes.

MARTIN: ...there's some pressure that - well, now that you're there, you're going to do things this way?

SOUTHWARD: Oh, yes. When I first got hired, when I was walking out - I think that week that I got hired, there was a woman who was involved in student affairs and she kind of grabbed me and was like, you know, it's glad that we have one of ours, you know, in there now in a leadership and kind of gave me the wink and the nod like, you know, we're expecting some type of different kind of coverage here.

And whenever there's kind of critiques or criticisms coming from some of the minorities on campus, there is a hint of - you should be kind of on our side type situation. And so, yeah, there's definitely kind of that pressure to tell kind of their type of stories. But also on the other side, there's a pressure that, like, you know, now that you - even though you are a person of color, the paper isn't going to be focusing on just these particular issues. So I think there's pressures on both sides to kind of walk a tight line of pleasing everyone.

MARTIN: But what about - Tyree, I want to hear from you, too. But, Brandon, I do want to ask you, though, why wouldn't you want to bring your perspective to bear on covering something? Like, I'm thinking about that incident in 2007 at Oregon State where the students participated in a blackout at the football game where some students just dressed all in black, but other people took it another step further and, like, the black face came out and the afros came out and a picture of one of these students ran on the front page of the paper.

And you were not on the paper staff at the time, but I understand that there are a lot of feelings about that, as you can imagine.

SOUTHWARD: Oh, yes. I mean, pretty much all hell broke loose once that photo ran and, you know, the editors themselves, who haven't dealt with something like that before didn't really know what to do. So there was an immediate kind of panic and, you know, from what I was told, you know, there was a columnist who wanted to write a story, basically, or a column apologizing on behalf of the paper. But, you know, the editor-in-chief said, you know, well, that's not your call. You're not on - part of the editorial board.

And so it was just kind of a mess and, you know, they just kept stepping on each other's feet. Now, obviously, if I was the editor-in-chief, that photo's not going to run. I'm going to know what black face means. I'm going to know why that's offensive and why that shouldn't be ran in the paper and...

MARTIN: On the other hand, if a lot of people were wearing black faces, then it's something that, perhaps, should be discussed. I mean, why wouldn't it be discussed that people think that they can wear a black face in this day and age and that that's cool? Isn't that a story?

HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, if I was editor-in-chief at the time, I would have ran...

MARTIN: Is that Tyree?

HARRIS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Tyree? OK.

HARRIS: Yeah. I would have ran the story - I mean I would have ran the photo and talked about the use of black face and how African-Americans felt about that. That's kind of the story I would have done.

MARTIN: It's interesting.

SOUTHWARD: Now...

MARTIN: Tyree. Well, go ahead. Well, Brandon, do you want to tie a bow on your thought there?

SOUTHWARD: Yeah. Well, Tyree, you know, I would not run the photo, but I would definitely explain the reasoning that there was a photo that could have been ran and definitely discuss kind of the whole incident through either an editorial or even through, like, an open forum with other students about, kind of, the whole black (unintelligible) because that was a widespread thing and that lasted for - I want to say like a month or so - kind of the backlash and the give and take. So that's kind of where I would have went in that situation.

MARTIN: That's interesting, though, that you don't agree and it's kind of an interesting and important reminder that, just because people share the same demographic doesn't mean that they have to have the same opinion. Right?

HARRIS: Right.

MARTIN: Well, Tyree, so a final thought from each of you. Just give us a sense of what you hope to accomplish during your - what's the right word? Your tenure as editor-in-chief? I don't want to say your reign because you have...

SOUTHWARD: Your reign.

MARTIN: You aren't the king, right? We wish.

SOUTHWARD: No. You can say reign. You can say reign.

HARRIS: Tyrannical reign. That's right.

MARTIN: Yes, all right. Tyree, what do you hope to accomplish during your tenure, your reign?

HARRIS: Well, when I leave the office, I want to be able to say that the organization is in a much better place than it was when I first started. Of course, alongside that, I do hope that I enable more voices, more opinions and more students to have access and the ability to say that the paper relates to who they are. That's the biggest goal for me.

MARTIN: Brandon, what about you?

SOUTHWARD: Tyree brought up, you know, his little brother and I have a little brother who's going to be coming here probably in two years and, you know, I hope that I inspire him to kind of keep reaching for what he wants to do. I don't think he's going to do journalism. I think he's too theatrical. But I hope that he reaches for his dreams and that he continues to aspire to be something good because, you know, as African-American males, expectations are very low for us and, you know, we really have to start raising the bar on what we expect out of - as young black males.

And, you know, I think Tyree is a shining example of this. I fully expect if his music career doesn't take off in the next year or two and he becomes the next great everything, that he'll be at The New York Times, hopefully covering my inauguration in 2024.

MARTIN: OK. Well, I will mark all of that down and keep track of all...

HARRIS: He's already campaigning.

MARTIN: Brandon Southward is the editor-in-chief of the Oregon State University newspaper, The Daily Barometer. He joined us from his campus in Corvallis, Oregon.

Also with us, Tyree Harris. He is the editor-in-chief of University of Oregon's newspaper, the Oregon Daily Emerald, and he joined us from his campus in Eugene, Oregon.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us. I do hope and expect I will be seeing you professionally in the years to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Up next, Bertie Bowman was a teenage sharecropper, working alongside his parents and his dozen siblings when he met a senator who would change his life.

BERTIE BOWMAN: I happened to walk to MacDougal's store one day and this white man was talking to a group of people and he said, if you're ever in Washington, stop by to see him.

MARTIN: And he did. From sharecropper to Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer, Bertie Bowman's amazing story is our final Black History Month memoir. That's next. Also, my Can I Just Tell You essay. That's on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Did you know that one out of every 10 American teenagers says she's been a victim of violence from a dating partner in the last year? Did I say she?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The biggest surprise for me was probably that boys are victims of teen dating violence, as well.

MARTIN: And now a young teen filmmaker is trying to shed light on this important issue. He'll tell us more about it next time on TELL ME MORE.

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